There you have it, exactly what we were looking for; a close, hard-fought championship win. A knock-out championship win. A win with only thirteen men on the field. A win where Cork came from behind in a stadium that has so often proved to be a necropolis for hopes and dreams.
A win that had us waxing lyrical about defensive performances as opposed to attacking genius. A win rescued from the precipice of despair as what seemed comfortable suddenly became apocalyptic at the death. A win with a bit of luck.
It really isn’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it.
More than anything, however, it was a win where Cork’s character was questioned, and they came up with the right answers. That’s not to say that there aren’t questions left to be answered, of course, but more on that later.
By far and away the most pleasing aspect of the day was Cork’s defensive performance. They held the starting Clare sextet to seven points from play, four of which came from Tony Kelly. And Niall O’Leary did as well as anybody could at curtailing the Banner talisman. Clare did shoot twenty-two wides but many of them came under pressure and many more came from their age-old failing of shooting when they shouldn’t.
It all means that for the first time in a long time, Cork look reasonably solid at the back. O’Leary is a natural back, Seán O’Donoghue has improved immeasurably, Rob Downey has re-discovered his form, Timmy O’Mahony has become more disciplined while Ger Millerick looks like he has always been there.
As I’ve said before, centre-back has been a long-term problem yet Mark Coleman is holding his own there, but perhaps we expect too much from him anyway, and such is his talent, other teams are going to do what they can to keep him out of the game.
It’s not a performance in isolation either. In the loss against Limerick the starting six backs conceded eleven points from play to the much-vaunted Limerick attack. When you consider that one third of the defence that started against Limerick was missing for the Clare game, it all becomes more pleasing again. And Colm Spillane was back on the bench too.
Obviously, there’s not enough evidence there yet to suggest that this is a long-term trend, but it does hint that things are moving in the right direction. Cork might have a sliver of a chance against anybody in a shoot-out, but there’s way too much being left to chance if you don’t have a reliable defence.
As for the shooting part of the shoot-out, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but it really is refreshing to watch a Cork team that carries a genuine goal threat. In the olden days that I’ve heard more about than witnessed, that threat offered Cork an energy that they always thrived on.
All three of the goals on Saturday were very different too. There was Jack O’Connor’s raw pace and aggression, Shane Kingston’s directness that was saved by yet another flash of unrecognised genius from Patrick Horgan and then Séamus Harnedy’s ruthlessness in picking out Shane Barrett.
There were chances missed that will need to be taken as the competition becomes even more fierce, but the threat is there.
Whenever you’re down, luck seems to desert you. When Barrett crashed home his goal, even the most pessimistic and damaged one of us out there would have conceded that the game must have been, for all intents and purposes, over.
Which brings us back to those questions as the helter skelter of injury-time was a microcosm of all of the faults that have haunted Cork hurling for this past decade and a half.
When Tony Kelly stuck the penalty, one would have assumed that there was absolutely no way whatsoever that Cork would surrender another opportunity.
When Clare won the resultant puck-out it didn’t seem like too much of a disaster as Cork were surely operating with only four forwards after the two red cards.
When Diarmuid Ryan launched a Hail Mary off his knees one would have assumed that there was a wall of red awaiting her arrival.
When everybody saw the chasm of space that separated lines half and full, though, then came the shivers.
Then Kelly was dancing through and before anybody really knew what had happened, Patrick Collins had saved the day.
For for the first time in a while, the ball bounced our way and we got what we wanted, and deserved; the aforementioned close victory.
Now all that’s left to see is where that bounce takes us. If you’re into omens you might remind yourself that the last time Cork beat Clare in Limerick, we reached the All-Ireland final. Or that the last time Cork knocked Clare out of the championship by two points we fell flat on our faces the next day out against Galway.
We certainly have no grounds whatsoever to be getting carried away with ourselves. Apart from our nature.
What is for certain, however, is that there is ample of room for potential further improvement in this team both now and in the future. A win like this one should help matters, but it’s imperative that the momentum is built upon immediately.
Which brings us to the Dubs. But we’ll have to talk about them later.
Because there’s just too much happening between now and then. Last night, the minors kept the ball rolling with another victory that was laced with all the good things that had become alien to us.
Tonight, we’ll be hoping for more of the same down the Páirc. And tomorrow we’ll be looking for more as the weekend approaches.